Sag Harbor Police Chief Says Reform Is An Ongoing Effort

Sag Harbor Police Chief Austin J. McGuire

Perhaps, the biggest concern raised at a community forum on police reform, conducted by Sag Harbor Village on December 9, was whether the village police department was doing everything possible to hire Black and Latino police officers when it had openings.

Police Chief Austin J. McGuire, who led the forum conducted remotely over Zoom, said he would love to, but that the Civil Service requirements have tied his hands, requiring that priority be given to applicants who are already village residents and there are rarely minority applicants who meet that requirement.

In the wake of several well publicized police killings of African Americans across the nation, New York State has ordered municipalities to conduct surveys, hold public forums, and issue reports by April 1 indicating how their police departments would better respond to communities of color within their jurisdictions.

Chief McGuire, while acknowledging that “there is always room for improvement,” told the online gathering of about 10 people, that he believed Sag Harbor police have had a good relationship with the village’s full-time and part-time residents, as well as those who visit or live outside the village boundaries.

He added that since he became chief in January 2016, he has systematically gone through the department’s policies to update them when necessary. “It has been a work in progress,” he said. “I wouldn’t even call it reform — it’s a renewal, basically.”

The chief told the gathering that 51 people had responded to a survey seeking to gauge the public’s perception of the local police force, with just under 65 percent saying they were “very satisfied” after their encounters with police and another 22.6 percent saying they were “satisfied.” Only 1.1 percent express dissatisfaction. About 75 percent of respondents said they believed the department’s chief role was to protect the public safety. Two-thirds of those who answered said the department should respond to calls for mental health crises, while 77 percent thought the department should respond to reports of drug overdoses, and 73 percent thought it should respond to reports of homelessness. But only about 57 percent thought the police should play a bigger role in the schools.

Chief McGuire, who has quipped that Sag Harbor invented the term “defund the police” decades ago because its staffing is at 1994 levels, said the village department, with only 11 officers, replied to 7,552 calls, about half the number that Southampton Village, which has 32 officers, answered and about 50 percent more than East Hampton Village, which has 24 officers.

At last week’s gathering, Stephen Roache, a resident of Ninevah Beach, asked the chief how he would categorize the department’s relationship with minorities and whether it actively recruited from that community.

Chief McGuire said he had recently hired the department’s first Latino officer and he would do the same for Black officers, but there are none on the preferential list, which, currently has 10 names on it, including three sets of siblings.

Mr. Roache, noting that it was unlikely that the village’s demographics would shift any time soon, asked if police conduct sensitivity training. That is an ongoing process, responded Chief McGuire.

Another participant, Elena Krotman, asked about the department’s relationship with Latinos, suggesting that those who are undocumented may be afraid to come forward or have a language barrier when they do.

Immigration status “does not have any bearing in how you are treated or how your call is handled,” Chief McGuire said. He added there are translation programs and noted that the department has one Latino officer, “but we have to let him sleep from time to time.”

Chief McGuire said the village will hold a second forum after the new year and said the community survey is still available on the village website,